“Sara? Sara, are you ready to go?”
I spun around in an exasperated circle, watching the skirt of my new dress flare out. “Papa, how can you ask that? I’ve been ready for hours,” I told him.
“Hours?” He raised a dubious eyebrow.
I nodded. “Yes, hours. Can we go now?”
“In a moment, when your mother is ready. Where’s your coat and hat?” asked Papa.
I groaned dramatically. “It’s spring, Papa. I don’t need my coat and hat.”
Papa put on his own coat and hat, then folded his arms across his chest. “My dear girl, I am a man of science. The calendar may say it is spring, but look outside and you’ll see that the trees are telling a different story.”
“The trees say I’m fine without my coat and hat,” I informed him.
“Your mother says otherwise, and that’s final,” said Maman, joining us in the front hall. She looked so chic in her red wool coat and matching hat that I abandoned my protest and put mine on, too.
“Fine. Can we go now?” I asked, twirling again for her to admire me. She kissed me on the head, and we set off for the market, the three of us, arm in arm.
This was our family tradition on weekend mornings. We would go for a brisk walk together and do our grocery shopping. I always insisted on walking in the middle. I felt safe and snug between the two of them. I also liked imagining the three of us as a sandwich: my tall, elegant papa and my pretty, sophisticated maman were the two sides of une baguette, and I was un petit morceau de fromage nestled between them.
“Bonjour, Dr. Blum! Bonjour, Mme. Blum!” our friends and neighbors would call out as we passed them in the streets. I liked noticing the way the people in our town looked at us. That’s Dr. Blum, I would imagine them telling visitors. He’s an extremely talented surgeon. And his wife is brilliant as well. She teaches at the university! And she was one of the first women in our village to graduate with an advanced degree in mathematics. Aren’t they a handsome couple? That’s their daughter, Sara. A lovely child. She plays piano and has many friends and--
“Hmm?” I looked up, flustered.
Maman gave me a bemused smile and wagged her finger. “Were you daydreaming again?”
“No! I-- Well, maybe,” I admitted.
“It’s not a crime,” Papa assured me. “If anything, it is a sign of intellect. You have a curious mind, Sara. Just like your mother.”
“I think the daydreaming part comes from your father,” said Maman.
We continued on our way. As we did, Papa quietly took my right hand. Soon, Maman slipped her hand into my left. I watched hopefully for a knowing glance to pass across my parents’ faces. Sure enough . . .
“Un . . . deux . . . trois!” they called, swinging my arms rhythmically before lifting me off my feet. I hopped at just the right moment to take flight, springing into the air. Maman laughed. “You’re getting too big for this, Sara,” she chided me.
“Never!” I protested, smiling back. I knew there was some truth in what she said--I wasn’t a baby anymore. But I still liked to play, and I wasn’t ready to give up our little games. I snatched a loaf of bread from her market basket and dashed off with it, holding the baguette aloft and hoping for a chase.
“Come back here!” called Papa. But he didn’t run after me immediately. I could see him whispering to Maman, his brow furrowed. My mother nodded gravely at whatever he was saying, then whispered something back. I wondered what they were talking about. Perhaps Maman thought I shouldn’t be running around in my new dress? Or maybe what looked like concern was simply the two of them trying to keep a secret from me. I did have a birthday coming up in May--could they be figuring out the perfect gift?
I studied them, heads together, and made a mental note to keep an eye out for other clues. That wouldn’t be hard to do, because I loved watching them. Theirs was a great love, but also a meeting of the minds. While doctors all over the world sought Papa’s advice on important medical matters, his most trusted confidante was not someone in the medical profession--it was Maman.
Within a few minutes, Papa raced after me, all signs of whatever had been preoccupying him forgotten. I shrieked with excitement, ducking to hide behind a tree. Both of us kept darting out and laughing, our chase continuing merrily until Papa triumphantly reclaimed the baguette.
As Papa caught his breath, I seized the moment to follow up on an idea I had had earlier. “Papa, you said it’s spring, yes? Can we go to the forest for a picnic?”
“Not quite yet, my little bird,” he told me, his eyes sparkling. “But soon, I promise.”
The Mernuit forest, near our home, was a dark and scary place, especially for us children. There were legends, going back centuries, about giant wolves that roamed the woods. Elderly people in my village were quick to warn me and my friends not to linger near the woods after dark, on account of wolves. To hear them tell it, these terrifying beasts would slip out unnoticed with the fog, prey on their victims, and leave as silently as they came. I didn’t know whether to believe this or not, but I came to view the forest as an ominous place much of the time.
Except in springtime, when something magical happened in the forest. Going to see it was another family tradition--one I looked forward to every year.
A few days later, I asked Papa for a picnic in the woods again. And again, and again, and again, until the day I got the answer I was hoping for.
“Let’s ask your maman,” he said, smiling. It was finally time.
We packed up a lunch basket. Nothing fancy--just some sandwiches, red wine for my parents, lemonade for me, and some fruit. Maman carefully folded a sky-blue picnic blanket with an embroidered border of pink roses. Then we walked deeper and deeper into the forest. The woods were less terrifying in the light of day, especially with both of my parents beside me. But I still kept a careful eye out for ferocious beasts, just in case.
Happily, the sight that greeted us was not a menacing bank of fog. Or a hungry wolf.
“Bluebells!” I cried, running into the purple vale as if greeting an old friend. The entire forest floor was in bloom, bursting forth in bright blue and violet hues. While my parents set out the picnic, I danced around in the glade. It was beautiful and fragrant beyond my wildest dreams.
“It’s magical here,” I announced to Maman when I finally was able to tear myself away from playing princess among the fairy flowers. I collapsed in a happy heap next to her on the blanket.
“It certainly feels that way,” she allowed. Her mathematical mind was often reluctant to acknowledge circumstances that could not be scientifically validated.
“It is,” I insisted stubbornly.
“She’s right, you know, Rose,” said my papa, topping off my mother’s wineglass. I grinned with pleasure that he was taking my side. “Bluebells aren’t usually found this far south. Clearly these flowers were brought here by fairy magic. There’s simply no logical explanation.”
“Ha! I knew it,” I cried triumphantly.
Maman took a sip, raising her free hand in mock defeat. Then she set down her glass and sighed, gazing at me with admiration. “Look at our little girl, Max,” she said. “She’s getting so big!”
Papa shook his head in protest. “She’s still our little bird, Rose.”
Little bird. I quickly sprang to my feet at the sound of my father’s pet name for me. It was also our code for my favorite game.
“Oh, Papa!” I said. “Can you make me fly?”
“Of course,” he replied, getting to his feet and reaching out for me. “How high will you fly?”
“As high as the sky!” I assured him. We locked eyes and I held his face in my hands, reveling in his attention. He was so strong, my papa. There was nothing he could not do.
“And how fast will you go?” he asked.
That was my cue to spread my arms wide as he lifted me up and began to swing me around in a wide circle.
“As fast as a crow!” I proclaimed.
“Then close your eyes . . . ,” said Papa, swinging me around. I took a deep breath as I gained momentum. This was my next-to-favorite part--the anticipation that came as I whirled, still secure in his grasp, just barely.
“. . . Time to rise!” he called, launching me high into the air.
I kept my eyes tightly shut, feeling weightless as I soared into the air. I pictured myself as my father’s little bird, the wind catching my wings and lifting me triumphantly skyward. Landing was always a rude awakening for me, but never a painful one. My father was so gentle with his tosses that I never got hurt. Instead, I begged for more.
I loved that game and how it belonged to just us, my father and me.
I loved how it made me feel--happy and carefree as a bird.
I loved knowing that even when he let go, I was completely protected and safe.
Summer 1940–Fall 1942
“Sara, come take a look at this,” called Papa to me one morning.
I was standing in our front hall, my book bag already on my shoulder and my hand on the doorknob. “Can you show me later?” I asked. “I’m going to be late for school.”
“This will only take a moment,” Papa replied. “And it’s important. Look here and read what it says.”
Impatiently, I glanced at the newspaper he was holding up. His hand was by the newspaper’s date, but I knew that wasn’t the part he was emphasizing. “France Surrenders to Germany,” I read aloud. “Papa, I know about that--we talked about it at dinner last night.” And every night, I thought. Of course there was a war going on--everyone knew that. But when Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party decided to invade France earlier that month, they took over our nightly family dinner conversations, too.
“Yes, but there’s more,” said Papa, indicating a map that was printed under the headlines. “This is France. Point to where we live.”
I did as I was told. Papa drew a red circle around the location on the map. “Very good,” he said. “Now, you see, there are two zones and our village is located in the Unoccupied, or Free, Zone. This means we are very lucky. We should be grateful that our home is not in the Occupied Zone.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the Occupied Zone is controlled by Germany. There are, and may continue to be, many changes and disruptions there as a result. But here our lives should continue more or less as normal.”
I glanced at the newspaper again, confused. “I thought France surrendered. Doesn’t that mean Germany runs everything now?”
He shook his head. “No, that’s why there are two zones. Our zone is controlled by a new French government, based in the town of Vichy, not terribly far from here. The new government is working with the Germans but sets its own rules for our zone. I just wanted you to know that, because the things one might see and hear in the streets can be confusing. I want you to keep focusing on your studies and not spend too much time worrying about the war. And if you have any questions, you can always come to me.”
“Okay,” I said. “Can I go to school now?”
Papa smiled. “You may.”
On my way to school, I rode my scooter past soldiers, who were an increasing presence in our town. Is that what Papa meant? I wondered. I noticed the big red banners with the black-on-white twisted crosses called swastikas. They represented the Nazi party and they had become omnipresent in recent months. Perhaps they, too, were what Papa was referring to. And I saw people greeting each other on the streets with a stiff-armed salute and cries of “Heil Hitler!” instead of “Good morning.” It was all a little strange and unnerving. But if this was what Papa was talking about, it meant nothing. And I was inclined to believe him. After all, Papa was an educated man and could speak with authority on any subject. To my mind, he was incapable of being wrong about anything.
A couple of weeks later, I came home from school one day and was surprised to find Maman sitting at the piano. Usually she wouldn’t be home from teaching at this hour. I slid onto the bench next to her.
“Shall we play a duet?” I suggested, arranging my hands on the keyboard.
When she didn’t respond, I turned my head and looked up at her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Maman dabbed at her eyes but did not answer. Reluctantly, she handed me a piece of paper. I read it over quickly, then looked back at her with confusion.
“They’re firing you from the university?” I asked. “But--why?”
Maman burst into tears and ran out of the room.
When Papa came home from work, I asked him to explain.
“This isn’t about anything she did or didn’t do,” he told me. “It’s the government. Recently, they passed laws forbidding us Jews to work in certain jobs. Including teaching.”
“But that shouldn’t affect Maman. We live in the Unoccupied Zone,” I pointed out.
Papa sighed. “It’s complicated, my little bird,” he said, looking more tired than usual. “The Nazis have been very successful in blaming Jews for all the troubles throughout Europe,” he explained. “They have convinced German citizens to believe these anti-Jewish sentiments, and their message has taken hold throughout France.”
In other words, the Nazi soldiers and salutes and banners in the streets weren’t the worst of it. They signified something far more insidious than I had realized. Something that was spreading, despite what we had been told about the safety that could be found in the so-called Free Zone. And despite how obvious these lies were, they seemed to be working. Otherwise Maman would still have her job at the university. I wished with all my heart that people would come to their senses and see reason.
But, like anything, I got used to it. War news was everywhere, but for many months I did my best to tune it out. I could still go more or less wherever I wanted on my bike and scooter and play with my friends like a regular kid. Until one day, almost two years later, when a letter arrived in our mailbox.